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Michael Meeropol: Black Lives Matter

Recently, at the convention of Netroots Nation Presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders were confronted by members of the audience demanding that they address the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement.   Both men missed the opportunity to show that they GOT IT.

Instead, O’Malley ham-handedly reminded the audience that though BLACK LIVES MATTER, in fact ALL lives matter --- while Sanders, in what can only be described as a clue-less non sequitur, said that he had a long history of fighting for Civil Rights.

[To be fair, Senator Sanders did redeem himself with a detailed speech before the Southern Christian Leadership Council on July 25 --- See https://berniesanders.com/remarks-senator-sanders-southern-christian-leadership-conference/.   At this speech, it did appear that he “Got It”]

Here’s the point.   The BLACK LIVES MATTER movement exists because though it is of course true that ALL lives matter, in our society today --- not 150 years ago during the era of slavery, not 60 years ago during the era of the Jim Crow South – but today in the 21st century black lives continue to be more at risk than are white lives.

That’s just a fact.

For details on the disparity in life expectancy and details behind that see

http://www.businessinsider.com/huge-racial-gap-in-life-expectancy-2014-1

Black life expectancy is 75 years compared to 79 for whites.  Black men have a life expectancy of 71 years compared to 76 for white men.   African Americans are more likely to die of heart disease, cancer or homicide than whites.   There is no complete national data base of how many civilians are killed by police and the race of the victims, but some partial analysis of data show that though a larger absolute number of whites are killed by police officers the chance that a black person will be killed by a police officer is three times that of a white person.

For details see http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/08/police-shootings-ferguson-race-data

This is the context of the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement.  Now, I am sure that many Americans feel that the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement is arguing that black lives matter MORE than white lives.   There even have been efforts by some “scholars” to use statistics to show that whites are more likely to be shot by police than are blacks (!!).

So let me say it loudly and clearly – again.

The whole point about the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement is that black lives are much more at risk.  The Centers for Disease Control looked at a number of elements behind the disparity in life expectancy among black and white Americans and noted that the group most at risk were blacks who had failed to graduate from high school.   It appears that this group really gets the short end of the stick when it comes to access to good preventive health care and treatment.  This of course explains the divergence in experiences with heart disease and cancer.

When members of the audience confronted Governor O’Malley and Senator Sanders, one woman demanded that they address structural racism.   What does that mean?   It means differential access to quality education --- the kind described so movingly by Jonathan Kozol in his book SAVAGE INEQUALITIES (NY:  Harper Perennial, 1991) and of course it also means differential access to good health care.   AND -- It also means the much higher unemployment rate for African Americans at all levels of educational achievement.   (The most recent national rates (as of early August, 2015) were 9.5 percent for blacks and 4.6 percent for whites).

All of these statistics are well known but ignored.   This willful ignorance – especially on the part of political and other leaders who are actually in a position to do something about these problems ---  is what fuels the anger of the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement.   Even with legislation on the books, budget constraints and political pressures undermine efforts to actually get things done.  It is a national disgrace that even President Obama, the first black President of the United States, felt constrained by politics to not be “too black” in his policy actions.  The animus towards his Attorney General Eric Holder indicates the unwillingness of too many white Americans to recognize the continued existence and toxicity of both individual and structural racism.

So how do we deal with this situation?  Probably the most important thing for white Americans (of which I am one) to understand is that we are ALL responsible for fighting the effects of racism – both the individual kind that can lead someone with a gun (whether civilian or police) to perceive an unarmed black man as a threat  (think Travon Martin -- think Michael Brown) and the structural kind that leaves a higher percentage of black babies born with low birth weight and a black infant mortality rate twice that of whites.

If we recognize these facts, we have made the first crucial step towards truly understanding the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author (with Howard Sherman) of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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